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The Medieval Pirates’ Nest of Crete

By Michael Goodyear

In the ninth century, the island of Crete would become a major base of piracy. Could the Byzantine Empire defeat this threat?

The Mediterranean world has a long history of harboring pirates. In the ancient world, Illyria and Cilicia were infamous for their dens of corsairs. Pompey famously cleared the Mediterranean Sea of pirates under the Roman Republic, but the descendants of the ancient Romans, the Byzantines, would have to face a new nest of sea raiders in the very heart of their empire on the island of Crete. The island is in the middle of the Aegean Sea and within striking distance of both Europe and Anatolia. When a group of Arab renegades from Spain arrived in the 820s, they made it their base for their century-long emirate and pursuit of pirate activities that would strike fear into the hearts of the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire.

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The origins of this pirate band begin in Moorish Spain, where a failed rebellion against the Umayyad emir there led to an exodus of thousands of Arab Moors. Probably merchants and farmers back in Al-Andalus, they now became pirates out of necessity. They proceeded to pillage their way across the Mediterranean before capturing the Egyptian city of Alexandria at some point around the early ninth century. After they were pushed out of Alexandria, they traveled to Crete sometime in the 820s (the sources conflict on the exact year) with their families, probably about 12,000 people in total according to one modern historian.

15th-century map of Greece and the Aegean Islands, including Crete

The timing could not have been better for the Arabs. The Byzantine emperor, Michael II (r. 820–829), had just emerged from a bloody civil war with Thomas the Slav, and the Byzantine army was still licking its wounds. The Byzantines were also facing another Arab onslaught in Sicily at the same time. Under these conditions, the Arabs established a toehold on Crete and managed to fight off two Byzantine expeditions against them. They then consolidated control over the island under their leader, Abu Hafs. Crete was now an Arab emirate.

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Life in a Pirate Emirate

Settling into their new home, the exiles from Spain set about establishing their rule over the island. The Arabs quickly established a new capital on Crete, the city of Chandax (modern Heraklion). Abu Hafs acknowledged the authority of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, although in reality Crete was independent of the Caliphate. They also appear to have mended relations with the Egyptians and were purchasing weapons from them to arm their soldiers.

But despite this new administration, the Arabs continued as they had begun. Arab raids on Byzantine islands and the mainland are recorded throughout the 830s, including raids on Euboea, near Athens, and the important island of Lesbos. The raids had mixed results; much treasure was brought back to Chandax, but the raiders were also defeated on several occasions. In response, the Byzantines created a new theme, or province, of the Aegean Sea to contain the threat. The Byzantines launched two more attempts at reconquest, but intrigue in Constantinople prevented either of these early campaigns from retaking the island.

Arab fleet sailing towards Crete in the 820s. From the Madrid Skylitzes

These Byzantine failures allowed the Cretans to rebuild their strength and set sail once again. In the 870s, Arab raids extended as far as Dalmatia and the Sea of Marmara, bringing them within striking distance of Constantinople itself. The Cretans also began to recruit Byzantine renegades, giving them an advantage of having naval men who knew the seas well and the territories of the Byzantine Empire. Two crushing defeats at the hands of the Byzantine general Niketas Ooryphas, however, forced the Emirate of Crete to agree to a truce and pay tribute for a brief interlude.

But after just a few years, the Arab fleets again set out in force. They occupied several nearby islands, including Patmos, and forced others such as Naxos to pay tribute. Pirate attacks continued unabated, with the inhabitants of some islands and coastal districts deserting them altogether for fortified towns further inland, especially in the Peloponnesus. The island of Paros was reportedly left a barren wilderness where only wild goats and deer were left. These raids brought countless treasures back to Chandax, reinforcing the soundness of piracy as state policy in the minds of the Arab elite. Byzantine Aegean life and the Aegean economy, however, were devastated.

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The dangers of Crete to the Byzantines were compounded by the Cretan Arab alliances with the Arabs of Egypt, Syria, and Cilicia. Crete was used as a base
by all of their fleets to restock supplies and sell loot and captives. Athens was possibly occupied by the Cretans around the turn of the tenth century, and in 904, Thessalonica, the second city of the Byzantine Empire, was sacked by the infamous Byzantine renegade Leo of Tripoli and his Syrian fleet. The victorious Leo sold Thessalonican captives in the markets of Chandax. In retaliation, the Byzantines attacked Crete in 911 under the admiral Himerios, for which we have astoundingly specific numbers courtesy of Constantine VII’s De Ceremoniis, but they were forced to retreat in defeat once again.

While the historical sources are replete with stories of pirate raids from Crete, we are lacking in historical narratives from Crete itself. We have little idea of how Crete was administered during its Arab rule or how its Christian population fared. One can presume that in the mountains the Christians could continue to live in relative isolation, or in resistance to the authority at Chandax, as later generations of Cretans would do against Ottoman and German authorities. This is supported by Byzantine poet Theodosius the Deacon, who reported that the Christians in the mountains descended to support Nikephoros Phokas in the eventual reconquest of the island.

The defeat a Byzantine reconquest attempt on Crete in 949 and drive the Byzantine army back to its ships – Madrid Skylitzes

The Byzantine Reconquest of Crete

While the Cretan raids continued to harm the Byzantine coast, the Byzantine Empire had only grown stronger. Indeed, its borders were expanding in every direction and a series of strong emperors helped to reconstitute the army. Constantine VII (r. 913–959) sent an expedition against the island in 949, which we know about down to minute detail through De Ceremoniis. This attempt failed like so many before it, allegedly due to the incompetence of its commander, but Constantine, determined to succeed, immediately began to build a new fleet.

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That fleet would fall to his son, Romanos II (r. 959–963), who entrusted it
to the highly successful general Nikephoros Phokas, the future emperor Nikephoros II (r. 963–969). Nikephoros’ campaign on the island is covered by the Byzantine historian Leo the Deacon, who reportedly used the campaign’s veterans for his sources. Despite resistance, Nikephoros stormed Chandax in 961 after a protracted siege and sapping of the city’s walls. He then pacified the surrounding country, restoring the former pirates’ nest to Byzantine rule.

The aftermath of the siege allowed Nikephoros to uncover all of the stored wealth from over a century of piracy. As Leo tells us, “[the] city of the Cretans contained great and inexhaustible wealth, since it had been very prosperous for a long time, had enjoyed good and kindly fortune, and had not suffered any of the abominations, such as disasters, that the vicissitudes of time usually bring about. By making use especially of the expeditions of pirates and corsairs, it had plundered the shores of both lands, and had stored away untold wealth as a result of such pursuits.”

The Byzantine perspective on Arab Crete is clear: it was a nest of corsairs that terrorized the Aegean for a century and survived through piracy and trade from that piracy. Without local Cretan sources from this time, it is difficult to get a full picture of life in the emirate. Sources from other parts of the Arab world give us a limited insight into Crete at this time, but they describe it as a relatively organized society that had a sophisticated economy, a high standard of living, extensive trade networks with other Arab states, and thriving markets with a plethora of gold and silver coins. Of course, none of this is necessarily inconsistent with being a pirate state. There is some evidence of increased agriculture on Crete at this time, which could signal a broader economy than just piracy.

Whether Arab Crete was truly a pirate state will probably never be known. However, in the contemporary eyes of the Byzantines, it was clear that the fleets from Arab Crete were pirate raids that devastated their islands and coasts and struck fear into their hearts. Written by their conquerors, the history books have given Arab Crete the legacy of a pirate’s nest.

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Michael Goodyear is a lawyer, having received a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. He has an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Byzantine history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications, including Le Monde diplomatique, Ancient History Encyclopedia, and the Vanderbilt Historical Review.

Further Reading:

Christides, Vassilios. “The Raids of the Moslems of Crete in the Aegean Sea: Piracy and Conquest.” Byzantion, vol. 51, no. 1, 1981, pp. 76–111.

Makrypoulias, Christos. “Byzantine Expeditions Against the Emirate of Crete c. 825–949.” Graeco-Arabica vol. 7–8, 2000, pp. 347–362.

Talbot, Alice-Mary, and Denis F. Sullivan (trans.), The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century. Dumbarton Oaks, 2005.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

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